Harvard weighs more than 200 variables from applicants. Here’s how you can get in

Deirdre Fernandes

October 28, 2018

Take Greek instead of coding. Skip the figure-skating lessons, play hockey. Move to Wyoming, get a part-time job, develop spark, cultivate grit, learn with joy!

And if you can afford to buy Harvard University a new building, do.

Ambitious students and their anxious parents have been trying to crack the Harvard admissions code for ages, spending millions of dollars on private counselors and scouring Internet message boards for hints to gain the slightest advantage.

But in the past two weeks, as the trial over whether Harvard’s admissions process discriminates against Asian-Americans has unfolded, the university’s own gatekeepers have been forced to tell all.

And what they’ve said has occasionally surprised even admissions experts.

Susan Tree, a retired admissions counselor from Pennsylvania, said she was struck by personal characteristics that Harvard officials reported looking for in applicants, including enthusiasm, “effervescence,” and a chipper disposition.

“I was laughing at some of the words,” said Tree, who wondered if Harvard’s classrooms had become too hushed by a too-bookish student body.

Sure, great grades are crucial. But when one in five applicants have scored the perfect grade point average and breezed through the SATs, academics just aren’t enough to stand out, admissions officials have testified.

Money matters. Too little can be a plus, and blue-collar parents who work as manicurists and janitors help set off a “diamond in the rough,” according to a Harvard admissions office document.

But the uber-wealthy are welcomed too, and applicants with parents willing to shell out millions of dollars to fund a new building or endowment will earn a closer look.

Race is a factor. Harvard has acknowledged giving an advantage to black and Hispanic students to ensure that all students are exposed to peers of diverse backgrounds, though it denies discriminating against Asian-Americans, as the lawsuit brought by Students for Fair Admissions claims.

Now, what about those extracurriculars? Truly exceptional athletic ability can be a huge asset; recruited athletes are ushered into Harvard’s class nearly 80 percent of the time. Harvard has been known to roll out the red carpet with staff interviews and calls from coaches for a student who could shine on one of the university’s athletic teams, such as ski, crew, and tennis.

A university committee reviewing Harvard’s Utah applicants, for example, urged top-level admissions administrators to give special consideration to an applicant “who is part of an elite group of ten American women elected for the US Ski Team’s National Training Camp.”

But being merely captain of your high school team? Meh. Admissions officials sniffed at the abilities of a high-school varsity swim team captain.

“Her level of talent is probably not at our varsity level,” they summarized in a bullet point of the applicant’s strengths and flaws. “What, exactly, will she do at Harvard?”

The student was put on a waitlist and eventually admitted.

And, despite her trophies, a competitive figure skater got the thumbs-down. Harvard doesn’t have a figure-skating team.

But as the university whittles down the more than 42,000 applicants to just over 2,000 admissions offers, the decision-making process grows dizzyingly complicated, Harvard officials said.

The university said it considers more than 200 variables in a complex and nuanced way when evaluating applicants.

Has the student’s mother or father died? That could offer an applicant an edge. Does he live in “sparse country” — a collection of mostly rural states, like Wyoming, where Harvard hunts for students, but in some years comes up empty?

Does the senior come from a high school where few of his or her classmates plan to go to college? Did she get a coveted interview with a Harvard staff member? Does he live in a neighborhood where most adults only have a high school education? Did their parents go to Harvard?

And then there is the question of what the student plans to study.

At a time when secondary schools around the country are working hard to up their science and technology offerings, it turns out that Harvard has a special place in its heart for humanities majors, including students of Latin and Greek. These kids ensure that Harvard’s math and science majors aren’t so single-minded in their focus and conversations, admissions officials said.

Harvard is also picky in offering admissions to engineers and computer scientists, in part because it doesn’t want to be dumped by technologically inclined whiz kids being courted by top science-focused schools. If too many of those students pass on Harvard, the college might have an overabundance of last-minute seats to fill, admissions officials said.

Still, from hours of testimony, a trove of internal documents, and reams of data, it’s also clear that Harvard admissions officers are looking for applicants who pack an emotional punch.

That personal score — a measure of a student’s character — is gleaned through essays, interviews, and school recommendations, and it is crucial in Harvard’s admissions process. The majority of students admitted earn top marks in this area.

William Fitzsimmons, Harvard’s longtime dean of admissions, described a particularly memorable admitted applicant: a dancer who performed with a local ballet company, had an internship at a research lab, aced advanced-placement tests, and juggled a part-time job, all while helping care for her ill father.

“I found this incredibly moving,” Fitzsimmons said.

Another Harvard admissions officer, who reads about 1,100 applications a year, testified about a student who was a Tibetan refugee and deeply involved in the Free Tibet movement; her application, the officer said, revealed her “passion” and “sense of self.”

“Her voice really comes through,” she said.

The admissions staff, on the other hand, gave a bland review of an essay from a biracial student who focused on his computer programming experience.

And they noted, with displeasure, the arrogance of a math “genius” attending a private East Coast high school.

In a recommendation letter, one of his teachers lauded the “sheer power and clarity of [the student’s] mind,” but added that “he has no tolerance at all for weaker teachers. . . . In his tenth grade year, he was seriously considering circulating a petition to have his then-English teacher dismissed.”

Harvard did not admit that student, concluding that his lack of extracurricular activities left him something short of a “bell-ringer.”

Underwhelming personalities can even undermine the prospects of elite athletes. Exhibit A: the case of a woman who’d been recruited for the Harvard crew team, whose documented lack of “spark or enthusiasm or any particularly compelling or appealing quality” torpedoed her admissions chances.

And, according to Students for Fair Admissions, nothing is likely to sink an applicant’s chances of getting into Harvard as being labeled a “standard strong.” That dreaded designation is reserved for otherwise excellent students who just aren’t Harvard material.

Ultimately, Harvard wants students who will add something special to its campus, said Bev Taylor, founder of Ivy Coach, a private admissions counseling firm, who always advises her clients to do their best to avoid being excellent yet run-of-the-mill.

“You want to stand out in some way,” Taylor said.